Making sense of the 2016 summer of terror

Both anarchist violence of the past century and ISIL today have sought to bring radical change to the global order.

Tribute to the victims of the Nice attack
Beyond its base in Syria and Iraq, ISIL projects violence beyond its state with autonomous cells, writes Al-Marashi [EPA]

How does one connect the murder of a French priest, Jacques Hamel, in Normandy on July 26 with two car bomb attacks that killed more than 50 in the Syrian city of Qamishli the following day? Both tragic acts of violence were claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) but represent the evolution of two distinct trends of political violence, even if the events occurred within 48 hours.

While the Qamishli attacks targeted Syrian Kurds, a formidable threat to ISIL’s presence in Syria, the tragic death of an elderly priest did not increase the strength of the ISIL in any tangible way.

The notion of a “lone-wolf” has come under question as a faulty analytical concept in understanding the violence in Europe.

Rather, those attacks in Europe and the United States are launched by individuals operating within an ISIL hierarchy of violence, and developing a self-perpetuating momentum, with little guidance from ISIL’s capital in Raqqa.

These types of attacks do little to prevent ISIL’s territorial contraction in Iraq and Syria, yet they form a discrete pattern of violence of striking at soft, symbolic targets, which harkens back to the anarchist terrorism more than a century ago – a persistent source of fear and anxiety in Europe and the US.

Activating cells

The summer of 2016 has witnessed ISIL attacks in urban centres such as Orlando, Baghdad, Istanbul, Medina, Nice, Munich, Kabul, Ansbach, Germany, Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray in Normandy, and Qamishli.

Hamid Dabashi’s earlier article on these attacks attributes them to ISIL as “the total state predicated on the pure spectacle of violence”. The attacks in Baghdad and Qamishli were orchestrated by this “total state”, striking at enemies which border it.

First, ISIL’s central organisation uses car bombs on the battlefield. Second, car bombs are ISIL’s most effective – yet indiscriminate – weapon of sapping the morale of the civilian base of its enemies in Iraq and Syria, the equivalent of Adolf Hitler’s V-1 and V-2 missiles which terrorised London.

Beyond its base in Syria and Iraq, ISIL projects violence beyond its state with autonomous cells, groups consisting of more than five people, with one member directly dispatched by the ISIL base.

The phenomenon of ISIS-ish attacks in the summer of 2016 raises the spectre of a type of political violence resembling the anarchist violence, or the 'first war on terror'.


The attacks further afield in Europe, the US, and Medina, Kabul, and Istanbul appeared to have been the work of ISIL cells, most likely with some direction of the central leadership or its regional “franchises”.

These self-contained networks were responsible for relatively sophisticated urban-guerrilla attacks such as the ones in Paris and Belgium. All these attacks were tangential to ISIL’s military campaign, but struck at soft targets that perpetuate a narrative of the global reach of the ISIL.

William McCants distinguishes between ISIL-directed violence and a category he terms “ISIS-ish” conducted by “men and women who have no organisational ties to ISIS but murder in its name.”

These attacks are launched on the individual level, and tangential to ISIL’s military and territorial objectives in Syria and Iraq. The attacks from San Bernardino to Orlando, from Nice to Normandy, appear to be ISIS-ish.

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Towards the end of their killing sprees, the perpetrators claim loyalty to ISIL, usually through a Facebook post or call to the authorities. Some of these individuals had online contacts before with ISIL members or sympathisers.

In some cases, ISIL leaders most likely learned about the attacks the way we do, from the news, and then opportunistically claim credit after the fact. Both on the cell and individual level, they strike at symbolic targets.

Past waves of terror

The phenomenon of ISIS-ish attacks in the summer of 2016 raises the spectre of a type of political violence resembling the anarchist violence, or the “first war on terror“.

While anarchists sought to usher in an age without political and religious authority, ISILists seek to usher in an age with a single religious-political authority, their caliph.

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From the 1880s to the 1930s, anarchist terrorism ranged from assassinating European heads of state and royalty, to US President William McKinley in 1901.

They targeted industrialists, such as Rockefeller and Morgan, and sought to bomb targets ranging from a Catholic church in Wisconsin in 1917, to Wall Street in 1920.

By no means did these anarchists match the brutality or systemic horror of ISIL-directed or ISISish attacks. Rather this historical comparison of cell-based and individual anarchist violence indicates what ISIL-inspired violence represents for the 21st century.

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After World War II, terrorism emerged owing to a confluence of nationalism, decolonisation, and Cold War proxies.

Groups such as the Irish Republican Army, the Basque ETA or Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the likes sought a future nation, usually within an existing state.

Leftist groups such as the Italian Red Army or Peru’s Shining Path, while adhering to a transnational ideology, still operated within their respective national settings.

The emergence of religious groups in the 1980s, such as the Lebanese Hezbollah or Hamas, originated from within national conflicts during that decade.

ISIL and al-Qaeda represent a decentralised form of transnational terrorism. The individual-level ISISish attacks this summer do bear some resemblance to the anarchist attacks of the last century.


Opposed to terrorist groups that sought Irish unity or Basque independence, both anarchist and ISIL violence sought and seek to bring radical change to the global order.

Whether it was an anarchist attack against a Catholic church, or the murder of a Catholic priest last week by a deranged ISISish youth, such attacks claimed symbolic value in the name of ushering in a utopian future.

Both represent the violent counter-cultures of their time. And like all violent counter-cultures, they will eventually lose relevance and die out over time.

Ibrahim al-Marashi is an assistant professor at the Department of History, California State University, San Marcos. He is the co-author of Iraq’s Armed Forces: An Analytical History.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.